“we’re too loud and tend to break things” — assembly house studiosBack
“The changes…,” said Ellie MacGarry, when we asked her about working in Assembly House Studios. “It’s the things you can’t see. Things like electrics. Because the electricity was just…”
We found out later from Lester Drake, Matt Wheeldon and Mike Winnard, three of the founders and directors of the artist-run studio space in Armley, that the electrics were just “one plug in a 2,500ft space. There was no running water or drainage. It all had to be sorted out.”
Key to sorting it out, according to Matt, have been “the big group of studio holders, who are really switched on and keen volunteers”; Ellie puts the credit back on Lester, Matt and Mike. “Especially as they’d only just graduated,” she says. “I’ve always been impressed with how motivated they are to get on with it — it’s been really helpful to the rest of us.”
Rufus Newell puts it plainer: “Assembly House has been crucial to me, and a lot of other people, staying in Leeds.”
There is electricity now, and plenty of it, with more on the way; more lights are the next job on the list, although at different times more lights, partition walls, a photo studio and a dark room are all said to be next on the list. “There’s still a lot of building work to happen in here,” says Alex Millhouse-Smith, “So where we can, we help out. Lester, Matt or Mike will always say if there’s a job that needs doing.”
They started out by wanting a workspace, and that’s exactly what Lester, Matt and Mike got; although the initial search for an artists’ studio wasn’t strictly meant to end up with thirty of them.
“As soon as we left the College of Art we started looking for a studio,” says Mike. “It just so happened that the one we found was really, really big.”
After unsuccessfully trawling commercial lets and council property lists, the space was eventually found through East Street Arts’ In Situ program, that matches artists and groups with temporary spaces. They helped Lester, Matt and Mike, “Get in there and start making it a bit less horrible.”
“The landlord said it hadn’t been cleaned since the early eighties,” says Mike. “There were these wooden structures and rusted metal everywhere, and a weird multi- coloured wall. Loads of junk and old flatpack furniture. It felt like we swept it at least a hundred times in about two weeks — dead birds, mould, rat skeletons. We’re still pulling it back from that brink, slowly but surely.”
“ASSEMBLY HOUSE COULDN’T EXIST IN LONDON”
Slow but sure mending and cleaning became exponential effort and new- making, after six months of temporary make-do, when a permanent lease was signed directly with the landlord and more studio holders arrived to share the work, and the rent; from ten to thirty in a month, with more on a waiting list, with many coming from existing artists’ collectives like Precious and Seize.
“The three of us went to uni together, and with the Precious Art Collective lot, so there was always the motivation to work with them,” says Lester. “In our second year at uni, as a way of doing that, we started a publication called Dilate that was the precursor to Assembly House.
“It was one issue, a 64 page publication that we used as a platform for all our mates to put artwork into. It was our first experience of collaboratively working; we all had quite different practices and worked quite differently.”
“When we got Assembly House we thought, let’s get more people involved in trying to fill this cavernous, empty room,” says Mike. “And it happened really quickly. From there we thought, if we’ve got the studio space, it’d be great to have some public-facing elements, so we sorted out part that could be a gallery, and then all the bits that could be facilities for the studio holders and also bring in new sources of income.
“So much of it has rolled on through the enthusiasm of the studio holders, and of the people who have approached us to put on shows, and the people that we’ve met since we started.”
Openness to ideas about how to use the space has become self-fulfilling, making Assembly House a home for exhibitions, spoken word, theatre groups, music; if it seems like someone can do something, the opportunity is there to do something.
“We like a lot of art that’s made in Leeds, but we’ve always had a worry that it’s quite insular, and a very singular type of art,” says Lester. “We were very conscious that we wanted to avoid being typecast. We’re primarily a visual arts organisation, but theatre, literature, film, music — they all relate and shouldn’t be isolated from each other.”
“That carries over into how we conduct the shows,” says Matt. “A lot of exhibitions can make us nervous, standing in this strict white cube with a glass of wine. [“We’re always too loud and Lester tends to break things,” adds Mike.] I have a lot of mates who aren’t all that interested in visual arts, but they still come to shows at Assembly House and have a really good time, chatting over a drink with people they normally wouldn’t meet.”
That inclusiveness seems born of the collective nature of Assembly House, which itself is only one example of a growing gathering-together of artists who, faced with tough times, are increasingly supportive of themselves and each other, sharing skills, splitting rent and helping each other balance regular jobs with irregular creativity.
“I think there is something quite natural about studio groups that go on to do exhibitions and larger projects in the city where they’re based,” says Matt. “It creates that little community of people within the studios and you’ve always got people to rely on and fall back on. With so many people in one space there’s always someone wanting to do something.”
“I think it’s also partly a northern thing,” says Lester. “If you’re in London you fight to get yourself recognised by a gallery that will represent you. If you’re in the north you need to get yourselves a venue and represent yourself collectively. To do that in London, to raise the amount of money to collectivise and grow, is completely unaffordable, so there develops a different attitude in the north to London: you’re less in thrall to the market. When you’re in Leeds you’re not expecting to be a big seller of your art; you’d like people to buy it, and people do, but it’s not the whole reason why you’re making art.”
That attitude isn’t wholly northern; Assembly House see something in what they do that is distinctly to do with Leeds. They’re conscious of the need not to become an “artistic island” cut off from the people of the surrounding Armley streets, and run open sessions once a month to bring people in, and workshops down the road at Armley Mills to bring themselves out. “The most recent ones were part of Breeze Festival, for kids aged 14-19, and it was a really good turnout,” says Mike. “These kids made great artwork for five days and learned loads of new techniques. This is what we want to do; that’s the bread and butter.”
“Assembly House couldn’t exist in London; maybe it could in Manchester, and maybe somewhere else,” says Lester. “But for us, we all met here mainly through uni, and we all had similar values, which we then saw Leeds already had.”
“Like hard work, I reckon,” says Matt.
“And not waiting for someone else to make opportunities for you,” continues Lester. “You’ve got to put the work in and come up with ideas and make something happen, otherwise nothing will happen. We’re all quite politically minded and we do think the world doesn’t have to exist within the normal ways of capitalist exchange; it can be something a lot more communal. And I think one unifying factor within the studios is we don’t feel it’s an important thing to make megabucks and be the next Damien Hirst.
“I don’t think Leeds necessarily caused us to have those values. But Leeds is a good place to have them.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 25